The sadness, outrage and scandal that shook Penn State University six years ago still reverberates today, although on a lesser and more infrequent scale, like fading tremors that follow a seismic shock. It was a tragic tale, regardless of where one placed the fault line, and the whole story will never be known or agreed upon, even as its final acts are now playing out. It will just continue to fade.
Next week, three former university officials are scheduled to report to jail to serve the imprisonment portion of sentences they received for misdemeanor convictions of child endangerment. Former senior vice president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley pleaded guilty. Former president Graham Spanier was found guilty by a jury. His request for a new trial was turned down Wednesday by presiding judge John Boccabella.
Last week, the lawsuit brought by the family of former football coach Joe Paterno against the NCAA was quietly withdrawn on the Friday of a holiday weekend. There was no settlement involved and both sides claimed victory, as if anyone has won anything since the whole terrible ordeal began.
A recent accounting of the costs to the university that have been accrued since former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested in 2011, and subsequently found guilty of 45 counts of criminal behavior against children, indicates a total approaching $250 million. Unsurprisingly, more has been spent by the school on legal fees than on reparations to the victims. Penn State confirmed last year that a settlement was made on an incident alleged to have occurred in 1971.
The lines in the sand that divide the two emotional sides of this subject became fortified trenches a long time ago. Regardless of the passage of years, there will be no crossing over and no repairing of the landscape. There is only one issue that divides the two sides. No one believes Sandusky to be innocent. No one is particularly interested in defending the three administrators who broke the law. The money is the money. It is only money and can’t restore what was taken from those children. None of that matters in the war that will never end. The only issue is what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it.
It says a great deal about the power of Paterno’s character that he still inspires the kind of unwavering loyalty held by his supporters. He was a great man in many ways; a great coach, certainly, and a great philanthropist to the school, but that doesn’t mean he was perfect. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t blinded to the seriousness of a situation that he sought to control rather than eradicate because it could affect the football program. It doesn’t lessen the legacy of Joe Paterno to say he was human.
The saying, variously attributed, is that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. As much as the Penn State scandal can be scoured for evidence in retrospect, that is where it usually comes to rest. Spanier, Schultz, Curley and Paterno were all good men in 2001 when the allegation against Sandusky by assistant coach Mike McQueary was brought to their attention. That’s 10 years and countless additional acts against children before Sandusky was arrested. Ten years. Those good men obviously didn’t do enough.
The three who will go to jail next week categorically didn’t do enough because they were also aware of a 1998 police investigation into an almost identical complaint against Sandusky. Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who led Penn State’s investigation into the scandal, concluded that Paterno must have known about that one, too. Paterno testified to a grand jury that he did not. Part of Freeh’s evidence was an e-mail from Curley to Schultz about the investigation that read, in part: “Anything new in this department? Coach is anxious to know where it stands.”
Is that circumstantial? Sure, it is. The entire mountain of conjecture on one side of those fortified trenches is circumstantial. One sheet of paper means nothing. But there are many sheets of paper. There is also the belief that no one threw a rock in State College without Paterno knowing about it before it landed. To think his defensive coordinator was under police investigation in 1998 and Paterno was not informed of that requires a willful suspension of common sense. Yes, the conclusions from one side are circumstantial and based on conjecture. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true.
From the other side, every point is met by counterpoint. What Coach? Maybe Sandusky himself. Maybe the law prevented Paterno from being told. Maybe no one wanted to upset him. Two separate reports were prepared to refute the Freeh Report, and that’s what they did. Hundreds of thousands of words hurled in both directions. None of them landing and none erasing the 10 years those children continued to be preyed upon.
If those four good men all knew about the 1998 investigation, if not more, and still didn’t bring Sandusky to an end after the 2001 incident, then the triumph of evil was indeed complete. In the case of the three who have been convicted, we can be sure. As for the rest of it, there are only those deep lines gouged in the sand and no way to cross the divide.
The tremors from the shock don’t come as frequently now. The imprisonment that begins next week, to be followed by a period of house arrest and then probation, for the men found guilty will pass quickly enough. The lawsuits will all be settled one day and the final accounting done. The statue of the coach might even be returned to the stadium eventually. It would be a mistake to bet against it.
Given enough time, all things are possible for those who stand on either side. All things, that is, with the eternal exception of seeing across to the other. That will never happen.